Modified Excerpt from The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010)
Update: Since I wrote this article, people have been asking me for a short guide so I created a five-page PDF called The Stoic Therapy Toolkit, which you can download free of charge from my e-learning site.
Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.
It is difficult, probably impossible, to do justice to the variety of therapeutic concepts, strategies, and techniques recommended by Stoic philosophers in an outline such as this. Nevertheless, I hope that by attempting to do so in relatively plain English, I will help to clarify their “art of living” somewhat, in a manner that may be of service to those who wish to make use of classical philosophy in modern life, for the purposes of self-help or personal development. It probably requires the self-discipline for which Stoics were renowned to follow a regime like this in full, and I imagine that the intention was to begin by attempting one step at a time. I certainly don’t propose this as an evidence-based treatment protocol but rather as an attempt to reconstruct the Stoic regime for discussion.
The chief goal of Stoicism, from the time of its founder Zeno, was expressed as “follow nature”. Chrysippus distinguished between two senses implicit in this: following our own nature and following the Nature of the world. Hence, Epictetus later expressed a general principle at the start of his famous Handbook, which the latterday Stoic the Early of Shaftesbury called the “Sovereign” precept of Stoicism:
Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception [the way we define things], intention [the voluntary impulse to act], desire [to get something], aversion [the desire to avoid something], and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, position [or office] in society, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing. (Enchiridion, 1)
Those things that our under our control, essentially our own voluntary thoughts and actions, should be performed in harmony with our nature as rational beings, i.e., with wisdom and the other forms of excellence (arete). Those things outside of our direct control should be accepted as Fated by the “string of causes” that forms the universe, as if they were the Will of God, and indifferent with regard to the perfection of our own nature, which constitutes human “happiness” or flourishing (eudaimonia). Following nature in this way, according to the Stoics, is living wisely and leads to freedom (eleutheria), fearlessness (aphobia), overcoming irrational fear and desire (apatheia), absence of distress (ataraxia), serenity (euroia) and a “smooth flow of life”.
1.1. Take time to calm your mind and gather your thoughts before preparing for the day ahead. Be still and turn your attention inward, withdraw into yourself, or isolate yourself from others and walk in silence in a pleasant and serene environment.
1.2. The View from Above. Observe (or just imagine) the rising sun and the stars at daybreak, and think of the whole cosmos and your place within it.
2. The Prospective Morning Meditation
2.1. Mentally rehearse generic precepts, e.g., the “Sovereign” general precept of Stoicism: “Some things are under our control and others are not”.
2.2. Mentally rehearse any potential challenges of the day ahead, and the specific precepts required to cope wisely with them, perhaps making use of the previous evening’s self-analysis. When planning any activity, even something trivial like visiting a public bath, imagine beforehand the type of things that could go wrong or hinder your plans and tell yourself: “I want to do such-and-such and at the same time to keep my volition [prohairesis] in harmony with nature” (Enchiridion, 4). That way if your actions are later obstructed you can say: “Oh well, this was not all that I had willed but also to keep my volition in harmony with nature and I cannot do so if I am upset at what’s going on” (Enchiridion, 4). (In other words, plan to act with the “reserve clause” for you are not upset by things but by your judgement about what you desired to achieve or avoid, and what is good or bad.)
2.2.1. Praemeditatio Malorum. Periodically contemplate apparent “catastrophes” such as illness, poverty, bereavement and especially your own death, rehearse facing such calamities “philosophically”, i.e., with rational composure, in order to overcome your attachment to external things (Enchiridion, 21). Contemplate the uncertainty of the future and the value of enjoying the here and now. Remember you must die, i.e., that as a mortal being each moment counts and the future is uncertain.
3. Contemplation of the Sage
3.1. Periodically contemplate the ideal of the Sage, try to put his philosophical attitudes into a few plain words, what must he tell himself when faced with the same adversities you must overcome? Memorise these precepts and try to apply them yourself. Adopt a role-model such as Socrates, or someone whose wisdom and other virtues you admire. When you’re not sure how to handle some encounter, ask yourself: “What would Socrates or Zeno have done in this situation?” (Enchiridion, 33)
Throughout the Day
1. Mindfulness of the Ruling Faculty (prosoche). Identify with your essential nature as a rational being, and learn to prize wisdom and the other virtues as the chief good in life. Continually bring your attention back to your character, actions, and judgements, in the here and now, during any given situation. When dealing with externals, be like a passenger who has temporarily gone ashore on a boat trip, keep one eye on the boat at all times (on yourself, your character) and be prepared at any moment to have to return onboard at the call of the captain, i.e., to abandon externals and give your whole attention again to yourself, your own attitudes and actions (Enchiridion, 7). As if you were walking barefoot and cautious not to tread on something sharp, be mindful continually of your leading faculty (your intellect and volition) and guard against it being harmed (corrupted) by your own foolish actions (Enchiridion, 38). All of your attention should focus on the care of your mind (Enchiridion, 41). In response to every situation in life, ask yourself what faculty or virtue nature has given you to best deal with it, e.g., courage, restraint, etc., and continually seek opportunities to exercise these virtues (Enchiridion, 10).
2. Indifference & Acceptance. View external things with indifference. Tell yourself: “For me every event is beneficial if I so wish, because it is within my power to derive benefit from every experience” (Enchiridion, 18) – cf. Nietzsche: “From the military school of life [Stoicism?]: What does not kill me can only make me stronger.” Serenely accept the given moment as if you had chosen your own destiny, “will your fate” after it has happened (Enchiridion, 8). Accept the hand which fate has dealt you.
3. Evaluating Profit (lusiteles). Think of life as a series of transactions, selling your actions and judgements in return for experiences. What does it profit you to gain the whole world if you lose yourself? However, virtue is always profitable, because it is a reward enough in itself but also leads to many other good things, such as friendship. Accepting that your fate entails the occasional loss of external things is the price nature demands for your sanity (Enchiridion, 12). If the price you pay for external things is that you enslave yourself to them or to other people then be grateful that if you renounce them you have profited by saving your freedom, if upon that you put a higher value (Enchiridion, 25).
4. Cognitive Distancing. When you are upset, tell yourself that it is your judgement that upsets you and not, e.g., external events or the actions of others. First of all, then, try not to be swept along by the impression but delay responding to the situation until you have had time to regain your composure and self-control (Enchiridion, 20). Likewise, when you have the automatic thought that something is pleasurable or desirable, be cautious that you don’t get carried away by appearances, but generally delay your response (Enchiridion, 34). Then contemplate together both the experience of enjoying the pleasure and any negative consequences or feelings of regret that are likely to follow; compare this to the image of yourself praising yourself for abstaining from it (Enchiridion, 34). When some apparent misfortune befalls you, consider how you would view it if it befell someone else, e.g., when someone else loses a loved one we might say, “Such things happen in life” (Enchiridion, 26).
5. Empathic Understanding. When someone acts like your enemy, insults or opposes you, remember that he was only doing what seemed to him the right thing, he didn’t know any better, and say: “It seemed so to him” (Enchiridion, 42). When you witness someone apparently doing something badly, abandon your value judgement and stick with a description of the bare facts of his behaviour, because you cannot know what he did was bad without knowing his judgements and intentions (Enchiridion, 45).
6. Physical Self-Control Training. Train yourself, in private without making a show of it, to endure physical hardship and renounce unnecessary desires, e.g., practice drinking only water, or when thirsty holding water in your mouth for a moment and then spitting it out without drinking it (Enchiridion, 47). Withdraw your aversion (or desire to avoid) from things not under your control and focus it instead on what is against your own nature (or unhealthy) among your own voluntary judgements and actions (Enchiridion, 2). Likewise, abandon desire for things outside of your control. However, Epictetus also advises students of Stoicism to temporarily suspend desire for the good things under their control, until they have a firmer grasp of these things (Enchiridion, 2). Engage in physical exercise, but primarily to develop your psychological endurance and self-discipline rather than your body.
7. Impermanence & Acceptance. Contemplate the transience of material things, how things are made and then destroyed over time, and the temporary nature of pleasure, pain, and reputation. View external things as gifts on loan from the gods and rather than say “I have lost it” say “I have given it back” (Enchiridion, 11). Think of the essence of things, and what they really are.
8. Act with the “Reserve Clause”. At first, rather than being guided by your feelings for or against things (desire or aversion), use judgement to guide your voluntary actions (or “impulses”) toward and away from things, but do so lightly and without straining and with the “reserve clause”, i.e., adding “Fate permitting” to every intention to act upon externals (Enchiridion, 2).
9. Natural Affection (Philostorgia) & Philanthropy. Contemplate the virtues of both your friends and enemies. Empathise with everyone. Try to understand their motives and imagine what they are thinking. Praise even a spark of strength and wisdom and try to imitate what is good. Ask yourself what errors might cause those who offend you to act in an inconsiderate, unhappy or unenlightened manner. Love mankind, and wish your enemies to become so happy and enlightened that they cease to be your enemies, Fate permitting.
10. Affinity (Oikeiôsis) and Cosmic Consciousness. Think of yourself as part of the whole cosmos, indeed imagine the whole of space and time as one and your place within it. Imagine that everything is inter-connected and determined by the whole, and that you and other people are like individual cells within the body of the universe.
1. The Retrospective Evening Meditation
Mentally review the whole of the preceding day three times from beginning to end, and even the days before if necessary.
1.1. What done amiss? Ask yourself what mistakes you made and condemn (not yourself but) what actions you did badly; do so in a moderate and rational manner.
1.2. What done? Ask yourself what virtue, i.e., what strength or wisdom you showed, and sincerely praise yourself for what you did well.
1.3. What left undone? Ask yourself what could be done better, i.e., what you should do instead next time if a similar situation occurs.
2. Relaxation & Sleep
2.1. Adopt an attitude of contentment and satisfaction with the day behind you. (As if you could die pleased with your life so far.) Relax your body and calm your mind so that your sleep is as tranquil and composed as possible, the preceding exercise will help you achieve a sense of satisfaction and also tire your mind.
CONTINUE TO REPEAT THIS PROCESS EVERY DAY
Appendix: Summary of Stoic Practices
To give you an idea of the breadth of Stoic practice, I’ve added a bullet-point list of some of the techniques found in the literature…
- Contemplation of the Sage: Imagine the ideal Sage or exemplary historical figures (Socrates, Diogenes, Cato) and ask yourself: “What would he do?”, or imagine being observed by them and how they would comment on your actions.
- Contemplating the Virtues of Other People: Look for examples of virtues among your friends, family, colleagues, etc.
- Self-Control Training: Take physical exercise to strengthen self-discipline, practice drinking just water, eat plain food, live modestly, etc.
- Contemplating the Whole Cosmos: Imagine the whole universe as if it were one thing and yourself as part of the whole.
- The View from Above: Picture events unfolding below as if observed from Mount Olympus or a high watchtower.
- Objective Representation: Describe events to yourself in objective language, without rhetoric or value judgements.
- Contemplation of Death: Contemplate your own death regularly, the deaths of loved ones and even the demise of the universe itself.
- Premeditation of Adversity: Mentally rehearse potential losses or misfortunes and view them as “indifferent” (decatastrophising), also view them as natural and inevitable to remove any sense of shock or surprise.
- The Financial Metaphor: View your actions as financial transactions and consider whether your behaviour is profitable, e.g., if you sacrifice externals but gain virtue that’s profitable but, by contrast, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses himself.”
- Accepting Fate (Amor Fati): Rather than seeking for things to be as you will, rather will for things to be as they are, and your life will go smoothly and serenely.
- Say to External Things: “It is nothing to me.”
- Say Over Loved-Ones: “Tomorrow you will die.”
- Cognitive Distancing: Tell yourself it is your judgement that upset you and not the thing itself.
- Postponement: Delay responding to things that evoke passion until you have regained your composure.
- Picture the Consequences: Imagine what will happen if you act on a desire and compare this to what will happen if you resist it.
- Cognitive Distancing: When something upsetting happens to you, imagine how you would view the same thing if it befell someone else and say, “Such things happen in life.”
- Empathy: Remember that no man does evil knowingly and when someone does what doesn’t seem right, say to yourself: “It seemed so to him.”
- Contemplate the Transience of all Things: When you lose something or someone say “I have given it back” instead of “I have lost it”, and view change as natural and inevitable.
Stoic Therapy Toolkit
Five-page summary of key Stoic ideas and practices.
Subscribe to download my Stoic Therapy Toolkit (PDF) free of charge, and receive your email newsletter.